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Voter ID trial ends with strong testimonies


Attorney Caitlin Swain (left) addresses the public with plaintiffs nearby.

It’s now up to a Black federal judge to decide whether North Carolina’s 2018 voter ID law is racially biased against African Americans, like the N.C. NAACP and others allege, or whether it is a law fairly crafted to serve all North Carolina citizens, as Republican legislative leaders and the N.C. Board of Elections maintain.

After a week of strong testimonies, Monday saw closing arguments in the bench proceeding from both sides in the federal lawsuit brought by the state NAACP five years ago that finally got to trial this year.

The civil rights organization maintained Senate Bill 824, passed by the Republican-led NC General Assembly, was passed with “discriminatory intent and designed to dilute the voting power of Black and Brown voters. Attorneys for the N.C. NAACP charged that the law violated Section 2 of the Voting rights Act, as well as the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

Defense attorneys for the state Board of Elections countered that the 2018 voter ID law is not discriminatory, offers free IDs to all who qualify, provides other options for those without photo identification and is the least restrictive in the nation.

“A legislature bent on discriminating would not have created all of these exceptions,” GOP Atty. David Thompson said. “The General Assembly was compelled by the people of North Carolina to enact a voter ID law.”

“Our elected officials are using redistricting, gerrymandering, felony disenfranchisement, discriminatory photo voter ID, and other predatory elections laws to restrict access to our democracy and try to cement their own power,” countered Deborah Dicks Maxwell, president of the N.C. NAACP and one of the plaintiffs’ witnesses.

“This case is one of our last remaining defenses against the onslaught of voter suppression tactics being levied against North Carolinians by extremist legislators. We cannot allow access to our constitutional right to vote continue to be eroded away in a time when we are working to build an inclusive, multiracial, multigenerational democracy that works for all people.”

Lead plaintiffs’ attorney Caitlin Swain, co-director of Forward Justice, a progressive issues law firm in Durham, agreed.

“Since 2018, we have stood with our clients, including the late Rosanelle Eaton, in their fight to ensure that Black, Brown, and poor people are not excluded from our democracy and denied their constitutional right to vote,” said Swain. “More than a decade has passed without full federal voting rights protections, and elected officials across the South continue to chip away at the voting rights of their constituents and the promises of our democracy.”

Beyond N.C. NAACP Pres. Maxwell, plaintiffs’ witnesses included Marcus Bass, executive director of Advance Carolina; Kenya Meyers with Disability Rights N.C. and Bishop William Barber of the Poor People’s Campaign and Repairers of the Breach.

Federal Judge Loretta Biggs also heard testimony from former state senators Theresa Van Duyn and Floyd McKissick Jr.; state House representatives Robert Reives and Marcia Morey; You Can Vote Executive Director Kate Fellman; Keith Rivers, Pasquotank County NAACP president, along with several North Carolinians who were negatively affected by the 2018 photo voter ID law.

During testimony, plaintiffs argued that there is a historical pattern of racial discrimination in North Carolina over the years. Whenever there are expansions of rights for people of color, they are followed by periods of White backlashed restrictive laws. Senate Bill 824 continues that pattern, they allege.

Plaintiffs requested that the court permanently enjoined the three major provisions of SB 824, which include the photo ID requirement, the addition of more poll workers, and the provision allowing voters to be challenged at the polls which open Black and Brown voters up to more instances of harassment and intimidation.

Pasquotank County NAACP Pres. Keith Rivers testified how, when he took his 88-year-old mother to vote, they were given misinformation by poll workers at several points. Eventually she was allowed to vote, but only after having to fill out a new voter registration form, despite having lived at the same address for more than 50 years.

Other plaintiffs’ witnesses testified to being intimidated by poll watchers, not being offered provisional ballots when their names didn’t show up on the registration rolls, and poll workers being poorly trained.

Judge Biggs approved plaintiffs attorneys’ request for an offer of proof to be expanded to include expert testimony and supplemental evidence for the Fourth U.S. Circuit of Appeals to evaluate whether it should have been excluded from trial.

Biggs has not indicated when she will make a decision on the case. The N.C. NAACP and supporters hope it will be in time to remove the voter ID law from the books before the November 5th general election.

The law was used during the March 5th primaries.